For nearly all teachers, watching colleagues teach is an uncommon event. As valuable as it may be for a teacher to compare and contrast a lesson of a well-respected co-worker with how she teaches daily, it happens infrequently. Teachers, as I and others have pointed out, are solo practitioners insulated and isolated from one another in buildings. One tactic of professional development that is inexpensive in dollars but carries great return-on-investment is increasing opportunities for teachers to observe one another. Such professional development offers the possibility of solo practitioners becoming collaborative ones.
Because the logistics of arranging a common time for a few teachers or even one’s self to observe another teacher requires at the minimum the colleague’s assent to be seen and a time slot acceptable to observers and the teacher, in a tightly scheduled school-day that is a major obstacle in an already crowded elementary or secondary school day. Of course it does occur from time to time as Jennifer Gonzalez’s described her experiences. This post offers a few examples of this simple but complicated way of improving teaching.
On occasion, an individual teacher arranges with a respected co-worker to observe each other’s lesson. Informal and practical, the colleagues work out the details visit each other’s classrooms and then find the time before, during, or after the school day to confer.
And sometimes groups of teachers do the observing. They take notes and confer after the end of the lesson among themselves and–if it can be arranged–with the teacher who taught the lesson.
Beyond individual teachers working out the logistics to observe one another in their school, there are districts that encourage groups of teachers to engage in classroom observations. Similar to what happens in hospitals when groups of novice and experienced physicians do “medical rounds,” “instructional rounds” aim to get teachers to examine closely how a lesson unfolds in another teacher’s class and discuss with other practitioner-observers what they saw. And what they may consider or not for their own classroom. It gets teachers to inquire and ponder the art and craft of teaching while avoiding judging the worth of the lesson as an evaluator would do.
There is nothing magical about teachers observing one another during the school day. Like any tactic used to improve teaching, it can be exhilarating for those teachers deeply committed to reflecting on their practice when observing an equally skilled colleague teach. And teacher observations can also lapse into the mundane if inquiry and questioning (without evaluating) are absent from the post-observation discussion.
As an inexpensive way of professional development–no out-of-town expert being paid $10K to give a lecture–classroom observation is expensive in another way: time. A teacher spending at least an hour or so in an already crowded daily schedule to observe a lesson and confer later is an expenditure that many teachers think twice about, given the physical and emotional labor spent in teaching students each day.
So in most districts, especially urban ones, watching colleagues teach remains an uncommon and time-expensive way of trusting teachers to improve how they teach on their own. Some districts hire substitutes to allow such observations but the practice remains atypical.
Uncommon as it may be, encouraging teachers to collaborate by observing one another lets these solo practitioners to learn from one another through comparing and contrasting their ways of teaching lessons. Doing so reduces teacher isolation and insulation baked into the age-graded structure of one teacher with one group of students in classrooms arrayed along hallways plowing through a packed daily schedule. From solo practitioner to collaborative practitioner, then, becomes more than a dream. Such a return on investment may far outstrip the time costs.